Loung has three brothers and three sisters, and the family of nine lives in a large, modern third-floor apartment with a flushing toilet, running water, and a maid. Loung is well off compared to many of her friends, who live in cramped ground floor apartments, which are dirtier and offer less privacy. The city’s poor live in tents in areas where Loung is not allowed to go, though she has seen the children who live there begging or attempting to sell crafts. Because the family lacks a refrigerator, Ma gets heavily dolled up and then goes to the nearest market every morning to buy food that she carries back in an ice-filled cooler. Ma is ethnically Chinese, and as is Chinese tradition, always takes her shoes off before reentering the apartment.
Loung continues to describe the joy and normalcy of her life in Phnom Penh. The Ungs’ relative privilege—evidenced by their large apartment and modern amenities—will contrast greatly with the horror they are about to be subjected to and reveals how ill-prepared they are for lives of hard labor. Loung also once again reflects on Ma’s Chinese heritage, which will prove dangerous under the genocidal Khmer Rouge.
At night, Loung enjoys sitting with Pa on their balcony and looking at the French colonial buildings alongside dingy houses. The two have “important conversations” on the balcony. In one, Pa says Loung’s name translates to “dragon” in Chinese, and that dragons are powerful and wise. Pa says a dragon formed from clouds has visited him many times to give messages about his children’s births.
This scene further establishes the special bond between Loung and Pa—a bond to which Loung will turn throughout the story in times of need. The story behind Loung’s name again foreshadows her ability to persevere under the horror to come.
Ma once told Loung that when she was two, someone tried to kill Pa because he was a government official and put a bomb in their trash can. Loung asks Pa about this, and he responds that Cambodia is in the middle of a civil war. Loung asks what bombs are, and Pa describes how such weapons are devastating the countryside and forcing many Cambodians to move to cities for safety. When they arrive, however, they cannot find work and resent the government for this. Pa says he does not understand why Cambodia is fighting a war, while Loung reflects that if only people knew how kind her father is, no one would want to hurt him.
This is the story’s first hint at the trouble brewing beyond Loung’s world. Pa gives context for the tensions that help give rise to the Khmer Rouge, and which fuel resentment towards government workers like himself. Loung’s reflection that getting to know a person can curb hatred highlights the innocence of her perspective; as a child, she is able to cut straight to the irrationality of the violence that will soon dominate her life.
Loung describes Pa’s past. He was born in a rural village in 1931. His father died when Pa was twelve, and his stepfather was an abusive drunk. He left home at eighteen to become a Buddhist monk, and had to sweep the ground in front of him to avoid killing living things. After leaving to marry Ma he joined the police force and became a secret agent. Pa left the force for the business world, but when the Cambodian government fell in 1970 he was conscripted by the new government of Lon Nol. He had to comply or would have been branded a traitor. Loung asks if other countries do things this way, and Pa explains the democracy of America. Pa says that, for example, if Republicans lose an election in America they would have to find other jobs; in Cambodia, they would have to become Democrats “or risk punishment.”
Pa’s background establishes the instability of Cambodian politics even before the Khmer Rouge: the Lon Nol government was full of corruption and denied citizens genuine freedom. The fact that Pa had no choice but to work for the Lon Nol government makes his later execution by the Khmer Rouge for his involvement all the more tragic. This is also the story’s first mention of America, which will ultimately serve as a symbol of hope and a chance for a new beginning for Loung.
Meng, Loung’s eighteen-year-old brother, joins them on the balcony. Meng, like Pa, is soft spoken and kind. He was valedictorian of his class and plans to go to France to earn his degree before marrying his girlfriend. Khouy, another brother, is sixteen. He rides a motorcycle, likes karate and girls, and is strict with his younger siblings. Keav, the family’s oldest girl at fourteen, is beautiful but a gossip—a trait Ma does not consider ladylike. Pa has heard stories of people being so discontent that they harass or kidnap government officials’ daughters, and so he has a policeman follow Keav wherever she goes. Kim, another brother, is ten and nicknamed “little monkey” for being small and agile. Chou is three years older than Loung and, unlike her little sister, quiet and obedient. She has dark skin like Pa. Loung’s siblings think she is a spoiled troublemaker, though Pa thinks she is simply passionate. The youngest sibling is Geak, an adorable three-year-old girl.
This is the first introduction to the rest of the Ung family, who will be a source of comfort and strength for Loung throughout the horror of next four years. Pa’s fear about Keav being kidnapped or harassed echoes the many abductions and rapes that happen under the Khmer Rouge. It also reveals that mistreatment of women is not unique to a single government; rather, misogyny it is a broader, more deeply embedded issue.
As a middle-class family, the Ungs have a television and two telephones. Loung also notes that her family seems to have more leisure time than others; a maid does the cooking and cleaning. Loung attends school with Chou and Kim six days a week and does homework on Sundays. Pa insists that the way to get ahead is to learn languages, and the children study French, Chinese, and Khmer. Loung sometimes skips school to go to the playground. She likes her school uniform, and when a boy tries to lift her skirt she pushes him so hard that he falls.
Loung continues to detail her family’s privilege in Phnom Penh, which later makes the transition to hard labor under the Khmer Rouge all the more difficult. The children’s education will also become a liability as the Khmer Rouge seek to exterminate intellectualism. Finally, Loung’s interaction on the playground again emphasizes her strength and ability to stand up for herself.
Pa takes the children swimming after school on Sundays at “the club.” There Loung sees her first “Barang”—which Chou says means “white man.” Keav corrects her, saying Barang actually means “French,” but because the French have lived in Cambodia for so long they use the word to describe any white person.
There are many French people living in Cambodia because the country was under the control of France until 1953. The Khmer Rouge gains power in part by exploiting the former colony’s hatred of Westerners, and will soon expel all foreigners.